One of last year’s more unexpected pleasures was the arrival of a UK edition of American Aquarium’s 2010 album ‘Small Town Hymns’, the first of their five albums to be put out on this side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to see the band live, but their first foray into the British market must have been a success because they are now issuing ‘Dances for the Lonely’, its predecessor.

Put simply, everything here sounds great – full of tunes and fire and soul and pedal steels. If the thought of a band who have named themselves after a line from a Wilco song appeals to you then, well, this will really appeal to you.

‘Dances for the Lonely’ opens, unmistakenly, in full Springsteen mode; crunching guitar chords, piano fills and horns – before bursting into a chorus with full throated rock vocals backed by Memphis horns. This chorus pretty much sums up the album, as singer and songwriter BJ Barham begs a wild girl he met in a bar, “Please don’t break my heart’.

By the time American Aquarium came to make ‘Small Town Hymns’, they had sharpened up. That record is a better defined album than ‘Dances for the Lonely’. This is rougher around the edges – but its also broader and feels more instinctive. I’ve never seen American Aquarium in the flesh, but I suspect that this album would give a much better clue to what it’d sound like if I had than ‘Small Town Hymns’. You just know that they’d play a venue like The Borderline as if it were Hyde Park. (Luckily, a live album is available online, if you’re too curious to wait for them to come to the UK).

Barham’s lyrics are full of references to broken hearts, bars and drinking. Given that he spends about three hundred nights a year playing bar room rock shows, its hard to imagine how he would be able to write about anything else. Even when the rest of his band take some time off, Barham picks up his guitar and stays on the road as a solo artist.

‘Dances for the Lonely’ is the kind of album you want to like – made by a band who never stop touring, who have clearly never for one second considered doing something else and whose love for classic rock and soul seeps through every second of their own music.

The stand out track, ‘Ain’t Going To The Bar Tonight’, sounds like the one Barham wrote quickest. A fist-pumping rock anthem, it finds Barham repeating that he won’t be going out tonight “because I heard you’re back in town.” Eventually, he gives in: “I guess I’m going to the bar tonight”, and the band lets rip – it’s that simple.

Objectively, the songs Barham wrote for ‘Small Town Hymns’ a year later are much better – more sophisticated lyrically, richer in tone and melody and considerably more distinctive. The songs on ‘Dances for the Lonely’ generally stay on well-trodden paths, and none qualify as genuine classics. But, it doesn’t matter. Barham carries them with his perfect whisky soaked twang, and the band give everything they can. So, nothing here is quite as good as 'Pet Sounds' or 'Born to Run', but when did you actually last listen to either?

American Aquarium take the tattered sofas and busted armchairs of the rock furniture, dust them off, tighten the springs and send them back. It’s comfortingly familiar, and yet not in the least bit worn out. One of the best albums I have heard in years.











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